You are on page 1of 10

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

By Heidi Bamford 2,431words

In March, 1861, William Dean Howells writing to John G. Nicolay, one of President Abraham Lincolns private secretaries, expressed his interest in obtaining a diplomatic post. He wrote: I want to go to Munich to pursue the study of German literature, and to have four years' opportunity. I do not conceive that I have any claims upon the president, superior to those of other Republican journalists, but have thought that the rank I held in the "noble army of" biographers might at least commend me to his notice. Howells writes once again to Nicolay in June, 1861, in a somewhat more urgent tone: My dear Sir-If I didn't succeed in stating definitely to you that I would be very glad and greatly obliged, if you made an effort on my behalf for the Vienna Consulate -- let me do so now. I have been afraid of the vagueness of the letter I wrote you yesterday. Thinking the matter over -- I have to say: Vienna, by all means; if Munich is impossible; and believe me a thousand times indebted to you. However, several months later, Howells found himself employed in the diplomatic service, but in another country altogether not of his choosing; yet one that would impact him as a writer. In October, 1861, shortly before he was to depart for Italy as U.S. Consul in Venice, William Dean Howells wrote to then Secretary of State William Seward to provide information required for obtaining a U.S. passport, and which Howells had neglected to send until the last minute: Name, William D. Howells; place of birth, Martinville, Belmont County, Ohio; Last place of residence, Columbus Ohio; profession, journalist. Age 24 years; stature, five feet and five inches; forehead, medium height; eyes, gray; nose, nearly straight; mouth, medium size; chin, somewhat short; hair, brown; face, oval; complexion, rather dark

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

Howells sailed from New York on November 9, 1861, on the steamer Glasgow and arrived in Venice on December 7. He was replacing J. J. Sprenger, who had asked for two months leave to take his ailing family to the Baths in Germany. Instead, Sprenger was unceremoniously relieved of his duties and by February 24, 1862, Howells took formal possession of the Consul offices.

What follows is a small collection of correspondence from William Dean Howells, who served as U. S. Consul in Venice during the Lincoln administration. Aside from writing several poems for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, the most significant literary accomplishment for Howells up to this time had been a hack biography of Lincoln that was completed for the presidential campaign. It was largely as a result of the campaign biography that Howells was selected to serve in Italy on behalf of the US government at that time. These records are part of the Consular Despatches at the National Archives (Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State). Howells was one of several noted 19th century American authors who served in diplomatic posts for a part of their careers: James Fennimore Cooper (Consul to Lyon, France under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, 1826-1833); Washington Irving (Minister to Spain under John Tyler, 1841-42); Nathaniel Hawthorne (Consul to Liverpool under Franklin Pierce, 18531857); Bret Harte (Consul to Crefeld, Germany and Glasgow, Scotland, under Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur,1878-1885); and Frederick Douglass (Consul General to Haiti under Benjamin Harrison , 1889-1891).

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

Though not very voluminous, nor particularly descriptive of the daily work performed by Howells at the Consul office, the despatches provide a unique perspective of an American looking from the outside in, observing events taking place in America, leading up to and during the American Civil War. Howells grew up sensitive to issues of race and class, having been raised in an abolitionist family in the abolitionist community of Martinsville, now Martins Ferry, Ohio; part of what was known as the Western Reserve. Once immersed in life in Venice, Howells quickly drew parallels between the material corruption and decline of American unity and subsequent civil war with the fate of Venice in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; attributable not to progress, wealth, or changes in lifestyle, but to the institution of slavery. In these following excerpts we get a glimpse of the impact of the American war at home and abroad:

November 8, 1862: Howells forwarded copies of the Official Gazette of Venice to Seward, directing the latters attention to a particular notice in the paper, describing to Italian citizens the advantages of immigration to the US. The notice, published October 30, 1862, stated that laborers coming to the US with no intention of becoming US citizens would not have to serve in the US armed forces. According to Howells, the article was attempting to make readers aware of the fact that up to this point, many immigrant laborers, unaware of this situation were applying for citizenship and unfortunately were almost immediately being conscripted into the US Army. The article was encouraging Italians to emigrate without seeking citizenship since they would not then be under the obligation to serve in the military and in fact, would find almost

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

immediate employment in agriculture or manufacturing, since both were suffering shortages of manpower due to the war. Absent any written reaction, it seems neither Howells nor Seward saw anything amiss in the tone of the article. It may even be that they viewed this as an advantage to the Union by bolstering the home front, using immigrant labor to keep the Northern economy strong and the Union forces supplied.

May 29, 1863: Howells writes to Seward describing a situation in which he had been contacted by a lawyer in the city of Venice, representing a widow, Madame Paturzo, of the late Guiseppe Paturzo. The lawyer was seeking assistance for his client (the Paturzos had apparently emigrated to the States some years before), in liquidating her late husbands estate in Verona and to have the proceeds forwarded to her at her residence in New Orleans. Howells informed Seward that he had instructed Mr. Edward Racole, the widows attorney, to go through the offices of the State Department in the United States as he, Howells, could not be sure, given the attitude of New Orleans to the US government, that Mr. Racole was entitled to the services of the US Consul.

September 30, 1864: A twenty-two page essay on the history of Venetian commerce is written and sent by Howells to Seward. Howells prefaced his essay by stating that he preferred to describe the current state of the Venetian economy from an historical perspective rather than to merely forward Seward a list of transactions. Howells pointedly notes the poverty of the area and the depressing decline in shipping and

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

manufacture of this once great culture. The staples of Venetian export at the time of Howells essay consisted primarily of glass beads and plaited straw goods. It must have been a severe if somewhat curious shock for Howells who, as a product of American culture in the manufacturing era that would soon become known as the Gilded Age was observing firsthand the primitive and shabby conditions of a region that contrasted sharply with neoclassical images of Greco-Roman legends and achievements that had influenced eighteenth and nineteenth century American literature and art as an expression of civilized culture and style. He wrote: I think this will be more useful (to those who look upon commerce as a means of civilization and not merely a system of mercenary transactions) than a dry exhibit of the present meager affairs of Venice; and I believe that the analogy which must always exist in the careers of republican peoples struggling up from small beginnings to great national prosperity, cannot be without peculiar instruction to Americans. Howells narrative of the progress and decline of Venetian commerce was based in part on Mutinellis 1831 publication, Del Costume Veneziano, which focused on the material wealth and corrupting influences growing out of the slave trade that was instituted by the early Venetians. Howells writes that the Venetians sold goods to warrior tribes such as the Lombards and the Goths, since these fighting men had not the skills to produce their own. Venetians sold salt, grain, wine, and slaves. Howells dryly notes that the Venetians sold Saracens to the Christians, Christians to the Saracens, bought captives from pirates and resold them. Like Mutinelli, Howells felt that the institution of slavery had impressed permanent traits on the populace, rendering them idle and indisposed to honest labor by degrading labor and making it the office of slaves. Howell reflects:

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

However this may be, it is certain that no people ever legislated wrong to others with impunity to themselves; and that where the law recognizes a great social crime like slavery, it cannot restrain its abuse - if a thing abominal in itself can be said to have an abuse. Howells narrates his tale of Venetian human rights abuses through the age of chivalry, where as much as Venetians may have scorned the grandeur and pretensions of the cavaliers and ladies, they were not loathe to continue to supply these people with the luxury items they desired to have. Eventually, the Venetians were confronted and subjugated by an alliance of people (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) whose ancestors and lands the Venetians had ravaged over time.

In essence, Howells believed that the early wealth of the Venetians drove them to seek ways to perpetuate a standard of living to which they had become accustomed. The desire to retain wealth and a high standard of living at all costs drove them to engage in the slave trade, eventually become wholly dependent on its effects. This ultimately undermined the strength and character of the Venetian nation as its people became enslaved in their own way. The parallels to Southern plantation living, dependent on slavery, as well as the Northern proclivity to ensure its own wealth by supplying the manufactured luxury goods to Southerners was not lost on Howells. This lesson in the consequences of greed, social injustice and complicit responsibility gave to Howells a style of writing that would be reflected in his first major work after returning to the United State. The Rise and Fall of Silas Lapham, and subsequent other novels he would write, characteristically attribute the dismal economic state of affairs of the characters

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

not to industrial progress and competition, but to the same bad moral choices made by Venetians in another historical epoch; the decision to engage in and perpetuate the slave trade.

American Realism or Modernism, the term given to the writing style of Howells and other writers of the time (such as Twain, Dreiser, Crane, DuBois, London), offered contemporary society a set of moral prescriptions based on observed parallels with historical legacies of wrongdoing that became undoing. It also effusively praised and supported material progress and attendant wealth for its civilizing influences, provided such wealth is acquired and maintained carefully through individual hard work and personal sacrifice, ultimately manifested in monumental public works and artistic displays of grandeur.

Howells philosophy on the reasons for the fall of Venice and his opinion about the impending similar fate of the United States is shared by other writers of the period. But unlike some of his contemporaries, Howells did not feel that Americans of the South were any less inherently evil than the Venetians of an earlier time. He looked at the slave economy of the South as an obstacle rather than a creation that had been put in the path of a successful people as a challenge to their moral character. Howells was more concerned about what the institution of slavery was doing to white society and material progress than about what it was doing to the social and psychological fabric of black people and

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

culture. Similarly, Howells does not condemn Silas Laphams behavior for the consequences it brought upon his family, but rather for the ill effect it had upon Laphams own moral sense of judgment.

Obviously, the decline of Venice witnessed by Howells had a tremendous impact on his sensibilities. But after this particular piece of correspondence there is little else of substance in the Consular records from Howell. In May, 1864, he sent a letter to Seward regarding the reviews of the Report on the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River (no enclosure survives) and in July of that year he applied for a leave of absence to return to the U.S. for one month to attend to a business matter. Howells proposed to Seward that Larkin G. Mead assume the office of vice consul in the formers absence. Howells noted that Mead had served as a volunteer draughtsman in the US Army during McClellans peninsular campaign in 1862.

In January, 1865, Howells once more applied for a leave of absence, this time for three months, letting Seward know that if he (Howells) was expected to retain his position at the Consul for an extended period of time, he would need to arrange his personal matters at home. But things changed when on May 1, 1865, Howells writes to Seward, expressing his sorrow over the death of the President while also expressing his relief that the Assistant Secretary of State had escaped the danger. That was the last letter written by Howells from Italy. The final piece of correspondence from Howells in his position as

An American Abroad: Howells Writes Home

by Heidi Bamford

diplomatic officer is written on a small scrap of paper, dated October 13, 1865. The letter was written from New York and constituted his official resignation from the post of US Consul for Venice and the ports of the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom. As with most diplomatic posts of the time, appointments came and went with each round of presidential elections. With Grant now in office, it is likely that Howells would have been replaced. Upon his return to the United States, Howells wrote for magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and Harpers Magazine and eventually published several best selling books.

William Dean Howells, ca 1908 (Library of Congress)

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08981

William Dean Howells, ca 1903 (Library of Congress)


http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Find out more about U.S. Diplomatic Records at: http://www.archives.gov/research/foreign-policy/state-dept/finding-aids/state-deptconsolidated.pdf